There is no question that sectarian violence is an issue that Arab governments need to address with urgency. What I find problematic in much of the current discussion around Christian insecurity in the Middle East is the oft-held assumption that ecclesiastical authorities–like Pope Francis, or the Maronite Patriarch–have a central role to play in drawing attention to this issue. Indeed, Western observers of the Middle East frequently assume that spiritual leaders are the natural leaders of Arab Christian communities, and that ultimate responsibility for representing Arab Christians falls on the shoulders of assorted bishops and patriarchs.
In my view looking to ecclesiastical authorities for political leadership is part of the problem, not the solution. And on this score I draw guidance from the case with which I am most familiar–that of Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt.
At the time of Egypt’s military coup on 3 July 2013, General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi made a point of positioning the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch, Tawadros II, at his side as he announced the deposition of President Muhammad Morsi. The implicit assumption in this display was that Pope Tawadros endorsed the coup on behalf of the Coptic Christian community in Egypt. That he could adopt this role was the legacy of a fifty-year partnership between the Coptic Church and the Egyptian state, which acknowledged the Coptic pope as not just a spiritual leader but a political one as well.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the Coptic pope held no such political role, and responsibility for representing the community fell to laymen, usually lawyers and landowners, the scions of powerful notable families. After the 1952 revolution, Gamal Abdel Nasser was loathe to cooperate with these collaborators with the old regime, and turned instead to the hierarchy of the Coptic Church to represent the interests of the Coptic community.
The leaders of the Church welcomed the recognition and resources that this direct relationship with the state produced. The problem was, and remains, that political leadership concentrated in the hands of clerics only sharpens the sense of sectarian divide. The televised announcement of the 2013 coup was a case in point: The ringing endorsement of Sisi by Tawadros constructed, by design and default, the notion that the Coptic community as a whole, and on account of its Christian identity, stood with the military against the Muslim Brotherhood.
What if Pope Tawadros were to withdraw from politics altogether, and refuse to comment on political issues? Most Copts have forgotten that there was a time in which their pope was not the political figure he is today–that there once existed a Coptic political leadership independent of the pope and the church institution. The pope’s withdrawal from politics would allow for the re-emergence of a non-clerical leadership of the community–and, in turn, a less polarizing sectarian climate.
All in all, we would do well to recall that bishops, patriarchs, and popes are not the natural leaders of Middle East Christians. And to expect ecclesiastical leaders like Pope Francis to defend their parishioners against the rise of Islamists is the ultimate sectarian Catch-22.